Okavango Alarm Clock


It sounds as if a team of early workmen is taking hammer drills to solid stone when the hippos start to grunt their good mornings and hope you slept wells. The frogs burp and trill in overwhelming numbers; the cicadas chirrup a counterpoint.

An elephant grumbles somewhere beyond the trees. The red-eyed dove introduces itself, as it does every day. “I am…a red-eyed dove,” it sings in its Andean flute voice. “Go away! Go away!” shriek the grumpy grey louries, known to all as go-away birds. The emerald-spotted wood dove quietly sobs, “My mother dead! My father dead! Everybody dead! Dead! Dead! Dead!” “Go away!” snap the louries. “Drink lager! Drink lager! Drink lager!” chant the hard-partying Cape turtle doves, for whom it is always six o’ clock somewhere. “Good Lord deliver us,” mutters the disapproving fiery-necked nightjar.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

On the Shores of Lake Malawi


There was a truckload of sacks clumsily piled next to the passport control office. One had split open, exposing its contents: a silvery mass of fish. The whole border post, inside and out, reeked like prahok, the sewagey fermented fish paste they dare you to eat in Cambodia.

At the edge of the village just over the border was a sign which read, “Healthy People. Clean villages. Stop Open Defecation”. Just beyond that, a middle-aged man threw open the door of his hut and strolled down to the road, glancing at us without interest. He was completely naked.

Women worked in a network of paddy fields, bending to harvest the rice with babies strapped to their backs. They laid the rice at the side of the road to dry, and draped their washing over bushes or spread it out on the grass. A man wobbled along on a squeaky, creaky pushbike with a big sack sagging along the crossbar and over the seat so that he had to lean forward onto the handlebars.

They called the money-changer Harry Highpants. He struggled onto the bus, puffing and sweating. He was flashily dressed on the cheap with braces which looked as if they had been tightened with a winch. His suit pockets bulged with kwacha notes.

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We stopped for a night on the shore of the lake which dominates Malawi and I strolled along the narrow beach between banana palms and papaya trees, past dugout canoes made from fat logs hollowed out and shaped at each end. Villagers swarmed around me, wanting to know my name, where I was from, how long I was there, and where I had been before. One called himself Mr Sweet Talker, another said he was David Beckham. They all had something to sell.

I am Mr Cheap as Chips,” said the first of the vendors in the row of craft stalls which flanked the road to the campsite. A handwritten sign confirmed it.

Richard,” said the next vendor who overheard when I said my name to Mr Cheap as Chips. “Come look my stall”.

Richard!” the other vendors chorused, and advanced on me with bracelets and carvings. “Just two dollars, Richard”… “good quality”… “see, big five”…“how much you give me Richard?”

Err. Maybe I’ll come back later.


We worked our way down the shore of the Calendar Lake, 365 miles by 52, paralleling Tanzania way over, out of sight, on the opposite bank, until it faded into Mozambique, and stopped at a campsite around halfway down. There was a long, wide beach bookended with mountains and, behind it, an open-sided bar, some hammocks, a pool table and exuberant bougainvillea.

Village fishermen dragged dugout canoes up onto the beach and hung their nets to dry. As the sun dimmed, the lake turned electric blue, and pinks and purples bled into the sky, and the villagers lit fires along the beach and grilled the fish they had caught that day in their dugout canoes and the smell wafted up towards me. Chambo: a tilapia unique to Lake Malawi.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

A Drive through Ngorongoro Crater

Frederick inched the jeep down the track to the floor of the crater, a huge caldera formed when an ancient volcano imploded. To the right was a salt lake pinked with all the world’s flamingos. To the left, buffalo feasted on tall yellow grass while oxpeckers feasted on their backs. Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em. And little fleas have lesser fleas and so ad infinitum.

But the flamingos and buffalos were a distance away, half-hidden behind trees and termite mounds, and after ten minutes I was prepared to be disappointed with Ngorongoro Crater. Then a warthog waddled down the road towards us, a squat, ugly thing with a mouth like a shovel with nails hammered through it. The warthog waddled right past the jeep – just inches away – stopped briefly for photographs, and waddled off into the grass.

A hundred yards along the road, we stopped for a zebra crossing. There was an abundance of zebra, an embarrassment of zebra; they were as plentiful as sheep in New Zealand. The zebra graze side-by-side, nose-to-tail so they can swat flies from each other’s faces with their tails. They graze with the wildebeest because they eat the same grass and the same carnivores eat them and each can look out for the others.


Hyenas!” someone shouted as three furry heads popped out of the grass and one broke cover and loped down the track at the side of the jeep. I never cared much for hyenas. They are always the villains in wildlife documentaries, nasty little things which laugh inappropriately and steal the poor cheetah’s cubs. But they need to hire a PR consultant because they are a lot cuter in person than they seem on the screen with their fluffy coats and sorrowful faces like bears’.

Simba” Frederick said.

Lions!” everyone else said, translating the one word of Swahili the whole world knows.

A coalition of four males reclined in the sun, looking pleased with themselves, as male lions will. The females do the hunting while the males strut about looking hard. Sometimes they roar; often they just stretch out and doze. But when a female comes back with the kill, they bully her out of the way and eat all the best bits themselves. There was a mixed herd of wildebeest and zebra within easy jogging distance, but hunting is not their department, so they ignored them.

The lionesses were round the corner, planning an ambush. Two fanned out, crossed the road and hid while the others crouched low in the grass, just metres from us. A moment later, a dazzle of zebra strolled over the road and across the grass in front of the crouching lions. They let a few pass and then pounced. The zebras turned and bounded back the way they had come, but the other two lions leaped out of hiding and came at them in a pincer movement. Lions to right of them, lions to left of them, lions in front of them; the zebras swerved and dodged, the lions ran after them, kicking up dust as they spun, but the zebras, narrowly, got away.


(c) Richard Senior 2014

To Count the Cats in Zanzibar


The rusty old ferry surprised me by getting across Dar-es-Salaam harbour without sinking; and the second ferry, to Zanzibar, surprised me more by being comfortable, modern and fast. I had a seat booked inside but resigned from that and went up on deck and sat in the sun with my legs over the rail.

Zanzibar– the zan in Tanzania – hub of the East African Spice Islands, centre of the Arab slave trade, was, by turns, settled by Persians, colonised by Portugal, governed by the Sultan of Oman, made a British protectorate, given independence and ruled as a sultanate for all of a month until the revolution, a massacre of Arabs and Asians (from hundreds to tens of thousands, depending on who tells the story), and an uneasy union with neighbouring Tangyanika. In Stone Town’s jumble of narrow streets, the buildings look faintly Mediterranean with rotting shutters and crumbling limewash, but then, here and there, is a great studded door like nothing in Europe, and mosques and madrassas which evoke the old Middle East.


I stopped for lunch at a restaurant overlooking the harbour and knew what to order before I even got the menu: Zanzibar fish curry, made with tomato, tamarind and coconut milk shot through with garam masala. A stray cat came begging and I slipped it some fish and the more the waiter tried to shoo it away, the more I secretly fed it. I think they might have been in it together.

Touts worked the little scrap of a beach, while fishermen sat in their boats, sheltering under awnings from the formidable mid-day sun. Young men leaned against walls either side of an alley to chat. An older man trundled a handcart past them, piled high with coconuts. Schoolgirls in hijabs giggled home from madrassa. Little boys kicked a burst football. Then the muezzin cried out across the city and the streets emptied as everyone went to mosque. Dozens more cats sneaked in the shadows and looked deeply suspicious and hurried away when I tried to be friendly. I remembered a line from Henry Thoreau, “It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar”.


I got repeatedly lost in streets which the map insists have names but which have no signs to confirm it. Sometimes I turned into a street full of tourist shops, brilliant with paintings and football shirts, sometimes into a sepulchral alley, which exploded with sound when a scooter appeared from nowhere. Always, though, no matter how far I seemed to have strayed from the tourist beat, no matter how conspicuous I had started to feel as the only white guy in a crowd, I ended, eventually, back on the main street in front of the harbour.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Etosha at Midnight


In the silence of the night, four giraffes shared the waterhole. They splayed their forelegs and lowered their necks and eased their heads to the oil-black water, where their reflections copied each move. An elephant lumbered into the scene, ears flapping, trunk swinging. It passed the giraffes, found a spot which it liked and paused for a moment like a chess player pondering a move.

The giraffes stole away and a black rhino took their place and the elephant started to drink. A lion roared in the near distance, filling the night with sound, and sending a panicky dik-dik scuttling. The elephant farted impressively to show how little it cared about lions and carried on taking two-gallon sips. Cicadas buzzed, a bird squawked. The last of the giraffes loped across the back of the set.

A second rhino arrived, then a third. They ignored the other rhino, which waited a minute and then left, as if it hated them too much to share the same waterhole but did not want them to think they had won. It met an elephant on the way out and there was a brief, unexpected stand off; but the rhino gave way and peeled off to the left, affording plenty of room to the elephant.

A jackal trotted to the water, gulped down a few mouthfuls and trotted away. A lone zebra slipped in between the elephants and tensed and listened when the lion roared again. The rhinos and elephants ignored it. Lions don’t worry them.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Smoke That Thunders

Dr Livingstone thought that Victoria Falls sounded better than the local name Mosi–oa-Tunya which means “the smoke that thunders”. The government says that it is going to change the name back, which has got people worked up in support and against, but is hardly among the more urgent things which need to done in Zimbabwe. To outsiders, at least, it is what the falls are which matters most, not what they are officially called.

The word “awesome” has become as devalued now as the old Zimbabwe dollar but, when it pops into your head at Victoria Falls, it belongs there. A mile of water, hurtling out of control, tumbles over the edge and disintegrates into abstracts: thick gouache white swirling over slime green, tumbling, tumbling, tumbling a hundred metres into the gorge below, hissing and rumbling, roaring and thundering like some massive industrial process; the spray rebounds, a gathering storm, higher – way higher – than the top of the falls, until a perfect rainbow chops it in two and it comes down again as an unseasonal shower and soaks the path and the tourists who stand there and gawp.

Vic Falls ruin waterfalls for evermore as surely as the Grand Canyon ruins canyons.


(c) Richard Senior 2014

Getting Stoned in Kenya

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Everything changed when the police started shooting.

High school students had blocked the road to Namanga, so no-one could cross the border. They were protesting because their school had been waiting five years for a bus to be delivered. Trucks and cars were backed up on each side of the road. Drivers stood around chatting and texting their mates. The protesters danced and chanted. One boy pogoed high in the air, as if performing a set piece for tourists. We jumped out of the bus to enjoy the mid-morning sun. Maasai herdsmen strolled along the track by the side of the road in scarlet robes; they carried traditional knobkerrie clubs in one hand, but one held a mobile phone to his ear with the other. A snake nosed out of a bush. Meerkats sat up and took notice then vanished. A vulture settled on an acacia tree.

Then the police arrived. There were half a dozen of them to fifty or more protesters, but they were just kids and the policemen were big, intimidating men; and they had automatic rifles, tear gas and riot shields. Disperse and go home, the senior one said, or words to that effect in Swahili. But the protesters carried on chanting and dancing. The drivers carried on chatting and texting their mates. We carried on enjoying the sun. The vulture left its perch.

The policemen were frustrated at being ignored and started firing over the heads of the protesters, who scattered, except a boy of somewhere around thirteen who lay on the road in a puddle of blood. Someone said he was dead; someone else said just badly injured. He had been shot; no, hit by a rock; no, trampled by fleeing protesters. No one really knew what had happened.

We got back on the bus in an orderly panic and the drivers melted back to their cars. Then the riot began. The protesters flung stones and they thumped off riot shields. The police replied with tear gas. But the tear gas ran out before the stones and the police sprinted across the plain out of sight.

The protesters, then, stormed down the road, stopping to pick up more stones, determined to throw them at someone. When they stopped level with the bus, we dived onto the floor and the stones came through every window. I held my daypack over my head while more stones hammered into the panels beneath the windows and a few landed inside. A chunk of compacted glass went down the back of my shorts; I was bleeding from a cut on my arm. More protesters passed, right by us, banging on the side of the bus as we stayed down on the floor and hoped they would not try to get in.

Then they were gone and it was quiet and we got up and abandoned the bus and walked to a nearby campsite, emptying the glass out of our clothes as we walked. The road was clear within a few hours and we crossed into Tanzania a bit later than planned and I never found out for sure what happened to the boy who was laid in the road.

No doubt the school is still waiting for its bus.

(c) Richard Senior 2014